The cool season has been slow to release its grip on Melbourne this year, so it hasn’t yet entirely felt like a new life on the far side of the planet for Kieran Bennett.
Just two weeks into a planned 12-month stay in Australia, he and his girlfriend – Rachel Griffin – have encountered wind, rain and temperatures not entirely out of kilter with what can be commonplace in an Irish winter.
Despite being over 17,000 kilometres from family, it doesn’t yet feel that much, given the wonders of modern technology.
The decision to travel was made almost a year ago, long before the Waterford hurlers’ 2022 season gathered such formidable early momentum only to taper so starkly in the summer. In other words, a small lifetime before confirmation of Davy Fitzgerald’s second coming as the county manager.
Bennett had a strong relationship with Fitzgerald while hurling Fitzgibbon during his time studying business at Limerick IT, so, following a largely peripheral involvement during Liam Cahill’s last season in charge of Waterford, he might have been expected to figure more prominently in 2023.
But plans were set in stone long before the inter-county hurling landscape flew into such end-of-season flux.
For Bennett, who will be joined Down Under by brother Shane in January, this was simply a life-choice he had been toying with for some time. He’d previously spent the summer of 2018 on a J1 in Boston, having completed his degree in LIT, informing then manager Derek McGrath that his availability would not extend beyond that year’s National League.
McGrath’s innately holistic approach to management ensured an uncontentious exchange despite Waterford trying to build on a 2017 season that had delivered them to the All-Ireland final against Galway. And Bennett has encountered an equally measured response from Fitzgerald now.
“To be honest, Rachel and I had been talking about doing this from before last Christmas,” he explained from Melbourne this week.
“We got the visas sorted in January and booked the flights shortly after. I thought, at least, if we booked the flights, we were committed. Otherwise, I’d probably be humming and hawing. I suppose there’s no right time to do something like this. But it just got to the stage where it needed to be done now, or I’d never do it.”
Bennett did seek out the counsel of Clare hurler Peter Duggan, who made an almost seamless return to inter-county action this season, having spent the previous two years in Australia.
The two were housemates at LIT and Bennett encountered only positivity in what Duggan had to say.
“Peter’s a good friend of mine and he told me I wouldn’t regret it,” he reveals. “So he was a bit of an influence on the decision too. He did Melbourne, Sydney and I think finished up in Perth. And you saw when he came back, he was still fairly influential for Clare this year.”
On Fitzgerald’s appointment last month, he did briefly float the idea of Bennett postponing his plans while recognising - deep down – that this was not a decision ever likely to be reversed.
Bennett explains: “I suppose I just got into such a routine playing inter-county hurling (he made his league debut in 2016 and championship debut in 2017). You’re gone every night of the week and you don’t really think about it. But then Covid came, and we kind of had a break, and the natural thing was to take a step back.
“You’re thinking, ‘Maybe there’s more I could be doing with my time’. Or at least trying to do something else!’
“I got on very well with Davy at LIT, and obviously, I’ve spoken to him since his appointment. He understands my decision and was just asking if there was any possibility I could put it back. But I was literally travelling two days later.
“So he was ‘Fair enough….’ I think he’ll be a great man for Waterford and I wish the lads the best of luck. Like, long term, I’d definitely hope to wear the Waterford jersey again, as I’m sure Shane does. Hopefully, that opportunity will come around.”
Fitzgerald admits that, while he would have liked to have Kieran and Shane Bennett on board for 2023 alongside their brother, Stephen, he fully understands and supports the decision to travel.
“I totally get how young people have this itch to travel now and it’s hard to blame them after the two years we’ve had with Covid,” Davy reflected. “It feels like we’re just coming out of that now.
“Look, I wish the two boys all the best. From my point of view, hopefully, they’ll be back sooner rather than later.”
For now, the intention for Kieran and Rachel is to give this Australian adventure a year.
A qualified nurse, Rachel is already inundated with agency shift work and has even been offered a full-time post in one of the city’s major hospitals. Kieran’s career path at home switched from business to engineering, having done an internship after college with Waterford GAA sponsors TQS Integration.
He did have the option of continuing that work on the company’s behalf in Australia but opted for a break from engineering, intending to return to it when he gets back home.
Accordingly, he was settling into construction work last week, his early schedule truncated by two bank holidays declared in Melbourne, one for the AFL final being played at Melbourne Cricket Ground, the other out of respect for the death of Queen Elizabeth II.
He has already had contact from a number of GAA clubs in the city, but with the season only due to start in January, he has been in no rush to commit himself to any particular jersey.
“The people I’m working with are linked to one particular club, so I’ll see,” he says. “I’ll listen to them all. There’s not a thing going on hurling-wise here at the moment, so there’s plenty of time.
Now 27, Bennett’s versatility maybe didn’t help him tie down a settled Waterford place during Cahill’s final year in charge. He started just two of Waterford’s seven games en route to that 2022 National League crown, coming on as a late substitute in four others.
And his only Munster championship involvement this year was an introduction half an hour into an already decided systems collapse against Clare in Ennis.
Melbourne, he admits, now feels an eternity removed from his home place of Ballysaggart (population approx. 250), but that tug of home will always be palpable.
On September 8, he stayed up till 4.30am to stream coverage of Ballysaggart’s intermediate county final against Ballygunner, a hard watch from the other side of the planet.
“Tough aul’ going,” he chuckles now. “Actually, a lot harder to watch than it would have been to play in, I think. Ballygunner are nearly untouchable at the moment.
“They were in the three county finals, junior, intermediate and senior. It’s hard to know who’ll catch them.”
They were lucky enough to locate an available apartment in the South Yarra district, one within walking distance of where Rachel’s twin sister, Amy, now resides with a friend. And there is a strong Irish community less than 15 minutes away on a tram in St Kilda.
So if homesickness looms, Kieran has no sense of it yet.
“We were just thinking if we didn’t go this time, we’d probably never go,” he says. “And I think I’d have always regretted it if we didn’t do this. Look, if you don’t like it, you can be home in a day. It’s so easy now.
“Then, with Facetime and video calls, I’d say it’s nowhere near as hard as it used to be. So we’ll see what happens. For now, the plan is to stay here for a year. But it’s early days.
“We could be home at Christmas, who knows?”